Monday, September 26, 2011

Cold Morning Skies, Porn Names, and Winter Cover Crops for Vegetable Gardens

Oh, morning fresh and clear as heavenly light,
Like warmth of love within the unwilling breast,
Sad to be so possessed,
Always the delicate shafts, piercing and bright,
Troubling my rest.

But airy-light, and fragile, bitter sweet,
A small bell rings and all enchantment's done
In smallest intervals of expanding dawn;
But quiet fills the eyes, lightens the feet,
Dissolves the wonder, all fulfilled, complete.
Marya Zaturenska, Cold Morning Sky

Unlike Zaturenska, I’m not a morning person. I’m not much for late nights either. Not much troubles my rest these lengthening nights. Truth be told, I would call myself a noontime person, but the term “nooner” has some vaguely pornographic overtones. And speaking of porn, I learned something recently from Matt Smith (the best Dr. Who ever). He said everyone has a porn name - the pseudonym you would use if you became a porn star. It never occurred to me that we should all have a personal porn name. Here’s The Doctor’s advice.

Your porn name is made up of the name of your first pet, and the name of the first street you lived on. Imagine: Dusty River, or Lucky Harding, or Buddy High. Of course now days, this formula seems to be breaking down, and after careful consideration I blame two trends for this deterioration in porn naming convention. First of all, people seem to be naming their pets less cleverly. Second, is the sad trend of suburban developers to name streets with pretentions of bygone Olde England. I mean, how would you expect to make the big-time porn-wise if you were billed as Tiny Meadowbrook, or Sweetie Pie Golden Acres, or Angie Sherwood Forest.

Perhaps it’s the cool smell of autumn in the air. Perhaps it’s the more oblique slant of the light as the sun shifts itself southward in its daily path and deepens the shadows. Or perhaps it’s just that I haven’t been outdoors enough lately. Why I find myself thinking and writing about the deteriorating state of porn names, instead of putting my garden to rest is as much a mystery to me as figuring out the perfect seed mix for the winter cover crop for our Veggie Garden.

I want some legumes of course, like hairy vetch to fix nitrogen. But do I want only cold-hardy ones like hairy vetch, or can I select some of the more cold-sensitive species like cow peas since the garden lives in Zone 9? I confess that Sunn Hemp is a legume that calls to me, but maybe that’s just because of its slightly naughty name.

Then, I’ll want some grasses to germinate quickly and generate organic biomass to be tilled back in as green manure. But do I want to stick with boring winter rye or should I risk something more exciting like oats or barley or buckwheat that might self-sow if I don’t till it back in before it produces seed next spring?

And crimson or rose clover sounds pretty, but do I want to stay away from white clover because of the risk that it will produce so many volunteers? And what about our pestilent wildlife? Will the entire cover crop experiment merely provide forage for rabbits, rats and squirrels?

Better I just spend some time with that tempting second cup of coffee and sit outside and fill my eyes with quiet until the wonder dissolves and the answers come to me.

Monday, September 19, 2011

The Star that Comes at Summer's End

“Old Priam first beheld him with his eyes
As, shining like a star, Achilles streaked across the plain,
The star that comes at summer’s end, its clear gleaming
In the milky murk of night displayed among the multitude of stars
 - the star they give the name Orion’s Dog;
most radiant it is, but it makes an evil portent
and brings great feverish heat on pitiful mortal men…”
 - Homer, Iliad, Carolyn Alexander, trans.

 Autumn has found my backyard, and tortures the parched garden with overcast skies, cooler days, longer nights, but still no rain.  The night sky however, even in light polluted suburbia, is beginning to take on the clarity I associate with cold winter nights. I’ve been reading Carolyn Alexander’s book, The War that Killed Achilles, and find it engrossing and more than a little disturbingly apt in the tenth year of America’s foreign war in Afghanistan.

What we know as the Dog Star (in the constellation Canis Major) is the brightest star in our night sky here in the northern hemisphere. The Greeks called this star Sirius, a word which means searing or scorching.  What we see as as the dog star is actually two stars. (Now, you say: “Seriously?”, and I say, “Sirius-ly!” because it’s true.) Canis Major, and it’s companion constellation Canis Minor represent the two hunting dogs of Orion, and familiar Orion, with his pointy sword and bow, is one of the constellations most people recognize.

According to this guy Sirus was “famed from times long past, the first glimpse of Sirius in dawn announced the rising of the Nile in ancient Egypt. (It no longer does because of precession, the 26,000-year wobble of the Earth's axis.)” 

Sirus and Orion are harbingers of winter. As days shorten, they begin their nocturnal hunt later - after the sun sets. In summer, Orion and his dogs cross the sky while the sun is above the horizon, and thus we can't see them in the sky until winter. 

In the Iliad, scenes with Achilles are often filled with metaphors about light, from dimly glowing to brightly searing. But unlike allusions to light that modern readers might  associate with good cheer or sunny dispositions, descriptions  involving light associated with Achilles are often heavily weighted with ill omens and dark portents. Here’s my favorite example of that - a digression in the description of Achilles donning his armor before he joins the battle in which he will slay Hecktor:

“He…caught up the great shield, huge and heavy
next, and from it the light glimmered far, as from the moon.
And as when from across water a light shines to mariners
From a blazing fire, when the fire is burning high in the mountains
In a desolate steading, as the mariners are carried unwilling
By storm winds over the fish-swarming sea, far away from their loved ones;
So the light from the fair elaborate shield of Achilles
Shot into the high air…”

I love the way this passage (Alexander quotes from Lattimore's translation) relentlessly focuses on increasingly fearful detail. While at first the light reflected from his shield seems to hint at good, but then we zoom into focus an image of storm-tossed sailors on a restless sea spotting a faraway signal fire evokes the sort of grimness. The light, intended as a beacon of hope and safety, becomes their final glimpse of unreachable safety upon a dry and distant mountain. The metaphor forces you to imagine that then the sea swallows them whole. This, to me, foreshadows the eventual fate of these soldiers. 

While the star that comes at summer's end may refer to an evil omen when described by Homer, for me it will continue to signal the season of harvest and feasting. Unlike those sailors who were unable to avoid their cruel fate, my garden today seems to look forward to it's destiny and to a long cool rest. My backgard will begin to thrive again when the skies change to signal that Spring is coming. 

Monday, September 05, 2011

Growing Old Disgracefully

"Sun smudge on
the smoky water."
Archibald MacLeish, Autumn

Autumn is in the air, finally. Because the air is shifting more onshore, blowing the eastern metropolitan San Diego smog up against the mountains, I can see the smog trapped across the valley that is the eastern border of the El Cajon valley. My front window faces north, looking down from halfway up the old mountains on the western side of the El Cajon valley. The valley slope of the northern side of the valley forms a cup, now half filed with brown fuzzy smog below. Above the skyline of these low mountains, is the clear blue sky highlighted with brightly lit cumulus clouds that tantalize us with their promise of cooling rain on parched summer ground. I heard thunder rumble as I was making my morning coffee.

My small town orbits like a satellite a typical American city in SoCal. El Cajon is a former frontier town, one that ruthlessly vanquished the “primitive” natives barely three generations ago. As the culture of our big city oozes out to us, we become another cookie cutter suburb. This is the place where Tom Petty said there’s a freeway running through our yard.  Our public landscapes are designed mostly by gringos now.

Everywhere, the crepe myrtle blossom effortlessly. I remember only the almost salmon red ones from my east coast childhood. Here and now, they seem mostly the softer and cleaner pink, delicate lace-white, and my favorite lavender ice.

Here and now, crepe myrtles come in two basic styles. First, are the rustic unpruned tall bushes with multiple graceful trunks tall open shrubs you see in peoples’ yards.  

The second landscape style could be called Early Twenty-first Century Urban Street Island Low Bid. This version features slightly embarrassed and pretentious plantings grown into standards – single-trunked bushes striving to be tiny trees. They are all more-or-less pruned into bloated baloons and lowish lollipops that would offer scant shade to a goat.  

 Either way, their lovely trunks thrive in our auto-centric urban environment, bathed in smog and auto pollution. Crepe mytrle bark sloughs off in smooth strips leaving behind hundreds of shades of brown and grey in a changing mosaic pattern. The bark would make lovely paper.

These small standards are often alternated with bright pastel varieties of oleander - that go-to barrier strip bush that seemingly evolved to stop a crashing car going 65. Another companion planting are Natal Plum bushes, with stars of fragrant flowers winking whitely amid the shiny dark foliage. These rigorously clipped hedges surround strip malls, seeming to try with their thorny limbs to contain the despair leaking out from the vacant storefronts.

Typically, within blocks of freeway exits, my neighborhood is still mostly suburban roadside and choked drainage ditches beneath dry and crumbling banks and hillsides covered with flammable dead undergrowth. Here often grow ubiquitous naked lady flowers who have, unfortunately, lost their virginal pink glow. They are growing old, and seriously, who wants to see their anorexic beauty that has withered them into naked old ladies.

Despite these borderline relentless flowers, every small garden bush, summer annual, and most of the background landscape seems to me to be accepting that it isn’t growing gracefully like grandma did. This isn’t where my grandmas lived and died.

The world has changed around me. In the half-life of my time here in Zone 9, a mere 30 years, it has become hotter and drier.  Even the allegedly low-water plants like Sonoran Desert natives and similar Mediterranean Climate plants (natives of west-facing coastal climates in earth's plump midsection, like South Africa, South America and Western Australia) - all are fatigued having spent their summer energy. But all are still here. All of us seem to be entering late middle age and seem, in this dry autumn season before our rains begin, to be growing old disgracefully.